By Saeed Azhar and Dinesh Nair
SINGAPORE/DUBAI (Reuters) - Global sovereign wealth funds are set to hasten investing the billions of dollars of cash holdings they have built up in a rebound from the 2008 financial crisis that has lifted their combined assets to a record.
But unlike three years ago, when they rode to the rescue of Wall Street titans such as Merrill Lynch and Citigroup
"They may not be the headline-grabbing investments that we are used to seeing from the funds," said Rachel Zeimba, London-based senior research analyst at Roubini Global Economics.
The funds have learnt bitter lessons from their plunge into the financial sector in the crisis, which wiped out billions from their portfolios in 2009. But they have recovered since as markets have steadied and their assets are now at an all-time high of $4.5 trillion, up from $3 trillion in 2007.
"SWFs have recovered fast from the financial crisis," said Steffen Kern, a Frankfurt-based economist at Deutsche Bank who has researched sovereign wealth funds.
"At around $4.5 trillion, their assets are higher than ever, and continued current account surpluses in their home economies promise sustained growth in the near future."
The investors, ranging from Abu Dhabi's Mubadala and the Qatar Investment Authority to Singapore's Temasek
Asian and Middle Eastern state funds now hold about two-thirds of the global sovereign wealth fund assets, helped by higher oil prices in the Middle East and current account surpluses in Asia.
Sovereign funds overall have been cutting exposure to developed markets, as highlighted by the Government of Singapore Investment Corp's
Khuram Maqsood, a former investment director at a Dubai-based sovereign wealth fund, said the funds are likely to resist selling U.S. debt, as a deadlock over raising the country's debt limit raises the specter of a default.
"It doesn't serve anyone's interest for a mass sell-off in U.S. debt. The implied increase in cost of capital with that action will not have a positive impact for the funds too," Maqsood said.
The funds are also becoming more interested in alternative investments such as hedge funds, private equity and real estate, said Jai Arya, head of BNY Mellon's sovereign institutions group. Despite the emphasis on diversification, though, the funds still have a third of their assets in the financial sector.
TEMASEK CASH PILES GROWS
The latest sovereign investor to illustrate the cash hoard was Temasek, which added $7 billion to its cash pile in its last financial year, 70 percent more from a year ago. Standard & Poor's estimated that Temasek had cash and bank balances of S$39.73 billion ($33 billion) as of March 31, 2010.
Temasek, which does not reveal its cash holdings, said earlier this month it is looking for opportunities in emerging markets and the United States.
An investment banker who has worked with sovereign funds said strategic investors such as Temasek may still go in for large buys as they want to take larger stakes in companies. Unlike a typical sovereign investor, Temasek owns the assets it manages.
"Temasek takes very big stakes in companies and they do maybe less, but more sizeable transactions," said the investment banker who has pitched deals to the state investor and did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter. "They are constantly looking at deals."
The Singapore investor has been building its cash levels through profitable exits from some of its investments such as this month's $3.6 billion paring down of stakes in Bank of China <3988.HK> and China Construction Bank <0939.HK>.
Other funds, which manage oil or central bank reserves, may look for smaller deals.
The GIC has been relatively more active buying stakes in IPOs and investing in convertible bonds, but the banker said GIC's investments are more "market-focused" because of a mandate to earn a few basis points above inflation.
China's CIC, the country's $300 billion sovereign fund which had bought stakes in Blackstone
In the Middle East, a higher proportion of state money may go to funds that are seen making investments which help boost the domestic economy, industry experts said.
In the aftermath of the Arab political turmoil, many state governments doled out massive handouts to citizens and set out plans to boost employment and improve infrastructure.
Abu Dhabi-owned fund Mubadala plans to spend $16.3 billion in 2011, a substantial portion of which is expected to be for its solar energy project Masdar, some real estate developments in Abu Dhabi and several public-private partnership (PPP) projects in the Gulf emirate, according to its bond prospectus.
"There may be disproportionate revenues funneled to those funds which strive to boost domestic economy, such as Mubadala in Abu Dhabi," said Ashby Monk, co-director of Oxford University's Sovereign Wealth Fund Project.
Mubadala has stakes in private equity firm Carlyle
Investment patterns of the Gulf-based funds are also starkly different from each other based in their maturity and portfolio size.
Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA), widely considered as the world's largest sovereign fund, with estimated assets of between $500-$700 billion, has kept a relatively low profile with regard to direct investments. It is positioning itself more as a large portfolio investor with significant passive investments such as index funds.
On the other hand, the relatively new Qatar fund has been grabbing trophy assets across the globe and its appetite for direct stake buys remains high.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani said in February Qatar is open to buying stakes in part state-owned British lenders RBS
"We pitch a number of ideas to Qataris in Europe, North America and lately in Asia. They have an immense appetite for deals and are very savvy opportunistic investors," said one Dubai-based western investment banker, who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.
But pressure remains high on investment professionals in these funds to boost performance and hence the due diligence and analysis made on investments is much higher than before.
"There is a mentality among some SWF professionals that it is better not to lose than it is to win," said Monk of Oxford University. ($1 = 1.207 Singapore Dollars)
(Additional reporting by Samuel Shen in SHANGHAI; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman)